I recently discovered how Barack Obama Sr. came to be in North America in 1959 – two years before the birth of his son in Hawaii. In that year, Tom Mboya, another Kenyan man and Oxford University graduate, set up a scholarship allowing underprivileged and academically gifted Kenyan students to study in the US. The scholarship has a number of very successful alumni, including Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, and Obama Sr. I gushed to my mum about how incredible it was that Mboya had opened up so many opportunities for so many young people. Without hesitation, she responded saying: “not even for them, think about what it’s done for their children”.
My mum’s response reminded me of a FLY meeting where we discussed the pressure that comes with being the daughters of immigrant parents. While I don’t qualify as such, I found that being raised for most of my life by a single Kenyan mother raised similar issues, and I empathised with a lot of what was said.
A common feeling among members at the meeting was that we’re not just at Cambridge for ourselves. Rather, we’re there for all the members of our family that contributed to our being there, and for those for whom our attending a university like Cambridge was a dream. Knowing this can be a burden. Most of us are already high-achievers who take low grades as a personal failure. Seeing this as us also failing those we love can seem unbearable. I can avoid this feeling most of the time. But occasionally, when I’m writing an essay that I know is sub-par, I’m reminded of my great-grandfather who, during a short visit to Cambridge in 1902, commented that he couldn’t imagine anyone in his family ever being able to afford an education there. That’s usually enough to get me to turn off Netflix/leave Cindies at an appropriate hour/generally do some actual work. But it’s also enough to leave me drowning in guilt when my sub-par essay gets me a suitably sub-par mark.
There’s also the general awareness of the sacrifices that our parents have made, often for the sole purpose of giving their children the opportunities we’ve gone on to take. I’ll pause here to point out that I know that the stories of immigrant children and those of white, English working-class children will sound very similar. But it’s hardly controversial to state that immigrants face a different struggle. One that’s multi-faceted and more arduous. Specifically, the parents of first-generation immigrant FLY members lack both white privilege and native privilege. This often means lacking class privilege, too. Rather than list the multitude of issues this can cause a person to face, I’ll quote a Nayyirah Waheed poem instead:
you broke an ocean in
half to be here.
only to find nothing that wants you.
It’s the case that few people, regardless of privilege, would be where they are without their parents. But it’s impossible to ignore the struggle of your parents when it’s so painful, so tangible, and suffered almost entirely for your future. And knowing this, it then becomes difficult to not worry endlessly about that future being wasted. When your parents have “broken an ocean in/ half” you can’t settle for just anything. Not meeting and exceeding your parents’ expectations can feel like a total lack of appreciation for what they’ve gone through.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. In fact, in this respect, I try not to see it as doom and gloom at all. It’s stressful knowing how much rests on your shoulders, but it’s also empowering. To know that you’re part of something much bigger than yourself. That every step across King’s Parade is made possible by the dreams of family members generations before you. And I look forward to giving back as much as I can, as do the other FLY girls I spoke to. My mum often (half-) jokes that I should pay for her early retirement. And to be honest, assuming I can get a job (pray for me, reader) I’ll do that and more. Not just for her but, continuing in the tradition, for the children I hope to have myself. I’ll continue to build on my future with the many privileges my mum’s work has afforded me. Remember that she didn’t push herself as hard as she did so I could settle for less than what a person in my position can achieve. Strive to make every Sebatindira who comes after me greater.
1) This isn’t neo-liberal, rags-to-riches, capitalist-dream propaganda. Structural inequalities exist that mean that often hard work isn’t enough on its own.
2) Going to a university like Cambridge is by no means the only measure of success. It’s just the one that’s most relevant here.